Friday, 15 July 2016

Bill Gates for an ASEAN digital future?

Khun Sirinya Wattanasukchai is right to raise concern in her Bangkok Post article last week over Bill Gate’s concerns at the tangle of telephone cables in Bangkok last week.

The cables are unsightly and must be dangerous especially in the rainy season. But is Bill Gates being a little unfair to Thailand's infrastructure and digital plans?

Here in UK we have a similar debate over unsightly electricity pylons, and the cancer dangers of mobile phone masts and the difficulty of the last mile of providing hispeed fibre cable for internet and telecoms and television. Here in Kent for example there are the problems of windfarm pylons on land linking to Belgian windfarms (despite East Kent hosting the world’s largest windfarm that powers much of London). And links through to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pegwell Bay (the latter landings for Julius Caesar and St Augustine of the Church of England) and Canterbury Cathedral, the Bagan of England if you will, with not one but 3 heritage sites in one city. Possibly only Sukothai may rival such a proliferation of culture. But in the 21st century, shouldn’t Bill Gates be more concerned over the Digital Divide than some unsightly cables? Here in UK we still have 12.5M people not on the internet or with computer skills – and even 18% of UK university students without a smartphone.

This in the world’s top 5 economy – vagaries of Brexit aside – and the birthplace of the inventor of the world wide web in Tim Berners-Lee that helped to increase Microsoft’s and Bill Gates’ fortune. And further back, UK led on the invention of the telephone and postage stamp and post office communication devices. And, Thailand has a very vibrant mobile phone market with True for example, as well as a vast range of the latest handsets and unusual permutations such as a Manchester United handset that isn’t even available in Manchester nor the rest of UK. Thailand also leads on innovative government policies such as the Yingluck computers for every schoolchild, that UK hasn’t achieved as yet. As MP candidate in UK, with a focus on better UK-Thailand links, I’ve shamelessly copied such an innovative policy for UK.

And in my advertising role, it’s worth highlighting that, despite the innovative Raspberry PI and Microbit computers, UK policy still hasn’t even attained say tablet PC’s on loan in schools and libraries – let alone 3D printers, graphene machines and VR headsets. And wifi is still far less advanced than in Thailand with its range of cafes and malls and outside free hotspots. While, from my film marketing role, digital cinema and IMAX and film showcases are far more prevalent in Thailand too.

It’s not all doom and gloom in UK though – there’s a vibrant Creative Industries of c.$125BN in revenue - with a large part of that IT and software especially computer games. And an ever-expanding series of Tech Parks such as Silicon Fen in Cambridge, Silicon Thames Valley with Bill’s European Microsoft mega-base, Silicon Roundabout in London, and the Silicon Coast from Brighton to Margate. And UK’s universities are world-class and supported by a wide range of schools, business colleges, 6th form colleges, adult education colleges, language schools, and the Open University, all with a wide range of IT and digital courses, and computer programming now a school course, and compulsory schooling extended to age 18. In an international nation, such as UK, and a globalised economy surely that last point is ideal for some sort of compulsory Gap Year or Gap Summer Exchanges with work experience or volunteering mixed with schooling abroad and foreign languages and digital expertise?

Keeping Britain’s schoolkids in school longer, given longer lifespans, is one thing but they need to learn from The School of Life too. Surely it’s an ideal programme for Thailand and ASEAN to grasp on the back of the Chevening scholarships to UK tripling? A formal Chevening Gap Summer? Japan and Korea do hothouse schooling badly in damaging their schoolkids while USA does volunteering well with the JFK Peace Corps. Unfortunately Britain, so far, dithers between the two. Let’s hope dynamic new Education Secretary Justine Greening fresh from success at DFID grasps the opportunity or at least reverses the UK’s appalling state of foreign language education. And just over the Channel Netherlands has become the first Internet of Things nation with a LORA network for Rotterdam port, Schipol airport and numerous Smart Cities. One for UK to aspire to.

While the latest ASEM Summit in Ulaanbator is underway this week between 53(!) Asian and European nations. Surely that’s a too-large and too-infrequent and too-transient talking shop, especially given the permanent EU offices in BKK, as well as the embassies of all the European nations? And unfortunately the ASEM has nothing to say on the digital future. The US-ASEAN Summit in California at the very least allowed Microsoft and the other US tech giants to highlight their tech to Thailand and the other 9 nations. Perhaps though rather than scoffing at a few cables, Bill Gates and such tech giants could take lessons from Thailand and ASEAN on the digital future?

Tim Garbutt is standing for UK Parliament for closer UK and Thailand and ASEAN relations, and is director of Sincerity Advertising and Surin School Charity with the first school already built in Isaan: @timg33

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